Michael Volk was an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the University of Michigan. His clinical practice focuses on the care of patients with liver disease, including those undergoing liver transplantation and those with hepatocellular carcinoma. His research interests focus on the ethics of resource allocation, patient and physician decision making, and chronic disease management. In particular, he has conducted a series of studies designed to improve the way decisions are made about using high risk liver transplant organs.
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Co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Public Life and the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, the 2nd annual Bioethics Colloquium took place on Friday, May 20, 8:30-3:30 pm, in the Alumni Center. The colloquium featured presentations of research in or about bioethics conducted by U-M faculty, fellows, and students.
The keynote speaker was Susan Dorr Goold, MD, MHSA, MA, who gave a talk entitled, "Market failures, moral failures, and health reform."
Nearly 70 people attended the event, which featured 10 presentations by faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students drawn from a variety of disciplines.
A 5% chance of death or a 10% chance of death: which would you choose?
Imagine that you have been diagnosed with a slow growing cancer. Right now, the cancer is not causing you to feel sick. For most people, the cancer will grow so slowly it will never cause them any trouble. For others, the cancer will grow to the point that it makes them sick. Untreated, five percent (5 out of 100) will die of the cancer. Your doctor tells you that you have two treatment options: watchful waiting or surgery. Watchful waiting means you will not do any treatment right away, but your doctor will follow your cancer closely and treat any symptoms that you have if it begins to spread. Although it would be too late to be cured, you would be comfortable and free of pain. There are no side effects to watchful waiting, but five percent (5 out of 100) of the people who choose this treatment will develop symptoms and die from their cancer within five years. On the other hand, the surgery would cure your cancer permanently. Following surgery you will feel more tired than usual and will experience stomach upset occasionally for the three months following your surgery. However, surgery has a ten percent (10 out of 100) risk of death during the surgery.
Imagine that both of these treatments are completely covered by your health insurance. Which would you choose?
- I would not take the surgery and accept the 5% chance of dying from this cancer.
- I would take the surgery and accept the 10% chance of dying from the surgery.
How do your answers compare?
In the real world, cancer patients sometimes choose treatments that may have devastating side effects over less invasive, yet equally or more effective, approaches. One explanation for this is that people may feel a strong need to "get the cancer out" of their bodies. Surgical removal of all potentially cancerous tissues may satisfy this desire so thoroughly that people end up ignoring important statistical information about adverse outcomes.
Making a choice not in their best interest
CBDSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter Ubel hypothesized that people perceive cancer diagnoses as a call to action, and more specifically, a call to get rid of the cancer through surgery, regardless of what statistical information might say to the contrary. Consequently, they predicted that when presented with hypothetical cancer diagnoses, many people would say they would pursue surgery even if such an action would decrease their chance of survival.
To explore the relative frequency of people's willingness to choose surgery when it wasn't in their best interest, the investigators designed a cancer scenario similar to the one you read on the previous page. Participants were presented either a surgery or a medication treatment that would either increase or decrease their chance of survival.
The investigators found that participants who were presented with the opportunity to rid themselves of their cancer through surgery were significantly more inclined to take action than those who were presented with the medication treatment. For example, when the treatment reduced their overall chance of survival, 65% chose the surgery, whereas only 38% chose the medication treatment. This suggests that people's treatment decisions may be based not on the effectiveness of the treatments, but rather on their beliefs about how cancer should be treated. Specifically, cancer diagnoses seem to conjure up a strong desire for active treatment. And people seem to have an intuitive belief that action should not just involve treatment, but surgical removal of the cancer.
Why these findings are important
The results of this study may resonate with many clinicians who have encountered cancer patients who seem to desire treatment for treatment's sake, or who have a preference for surgical intervention even before they learn about the pros and cons of their treatment alternatives. This study should serve to remind clinicians that patients' preference for action can be strong enough, at times, to be a bias. At a minimum, it is important for health care professionals to be aware of the potential for such biases, so they can decide whether to accept patients' preferences at face value, or try to convince patients that aggressively treating a tumor may not be in their best interests.
Read the article:
Cure me even if it kills me: Preferences for invasive cancer treatment.
Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. Medical Decision Making 2005;25(6):614-619.
How do your risk estimate and your actual level of risk impact your anxiety? Please answer the following question to the best of your ability:
What is the chance that the average woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime?
The average lifetime chance of developing breast cancer is actually 13%.
How do your answers compare?
Making a risk estimate can change the feel of the actual risk
CBDSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter Ubel designed a study to test whether people react differently to risk information after they have been asked to estimate the risks. In this study, half the sample first estimated the average woman's risk of breast cancer (just as you did previously), while the other half made no such estimate. All subjects were then shown the actual risk information and indicated how the risk made them feel and gave their impression of the size of the risk. The graph below shows what they found:
As shown in the graph above, subjects who first made an estimated risk reported significantly more relief than those in the no estimate group. In contrast, subjects in the no estimate group showed significantly greater anxiety. Also, women in the estimate group tended to view the risk as low, whereas those in the no estimate group tended to view the risk as high.
So what's responsible for these findings? On average, those in the estimate group guessed that 46% of women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, which is a fairly large overestimate of the actual risk. It appears, then, that this overestimate makes the 13% figure feel relatively low, leading to a sense of relief when subjects find the risk isn't as bad as they had previously thought.
Why this finding is important
Clinical practice implications - The current research suggests that clinicians need to be very deliberate but very cautious in how they communicate risk information to their patients. These results argue that a physician should consider whether a person is likely to over-estimate their risk and whether they have an unreasonably high fear of cancer before having them make a risk estimation. For the average patient who would overestimate their risk, making a risk estimation may be harmful, leading them to be too relieved by the actual risk figure to take appropriate actions. On the other hand, if a patient has an unreasonably high fear of cancer, having them make such an estimate may actually be instrumental in decreasing their anxiety. Physicians may want to subtly inquire whether their patient is worried about her cancer risk or if she has any family history of cancer to address the latter type of patient.
Research implications - Many studies in cancer risk communication literature have asked participants at baseline about their perceived risk of developing specific cancers. Researchers then implement an intervention to "correct" baseline risk estimates. The current results suggest that measuring risk perceptions pre-intervention will influence people's subsequent reactions, making it difficult to discern whether it was the intervention that changed their attitudes or the pre-intervention risk estimate. Researchers testing out such interventions need to proceed with caution, and may need to add research arms of people who do not receive such pre-tests.
For more details: Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. How making a risk estimate can change the feel of that risk: shifting attitudes toward breast cancer risk in a general public survey. Patient Educ Couns. 2005 Jun;57(3):294-9.
For certain diseases, receiving treatment can disrupt daily life considerably. How would this disruption affect your happiness?
Think about your average mood during a typical week. How would you rate your average mood?
- very pleasant
- slightly pleasant
- slightly unpleasant
- very unpleasant
- very pleasant
- slightly pleasant
- slightly unpleasant
- very unpleasant
How do your answers compare?
The discrepancy between Patients and Non-patients
Past research has shown that there are serious health conditions that do not seem to be as badly experienced by the people living with them as healthy people would expect. Although the existence of this discrepancy is well established at this point, its cause is not. One possibility is that patients are exaggerating their well-being. They may be focusing on periods of positive mood even though they actually experience lengthy periods of negative mood. On the other hand, patients might be as happy as they report and healthy people might very much be overestimating the negative impact of the illness. A related explanation comes from evidence that healthy people tend to underestimate their own past moods, recalling negative times more readily than positive times. This would then make them more likely to also understate the well-being of other people as well, and this could contribute to the discrepancy.
Which explanation is correct?
Jason Riis, a researcher at the University of Michigan, teamed up with investigators from CBDSM and the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study with the goal of finding out which of the above explanations is accountable for the discrepancy. To accomplish this, they set out to measure mood in two ways. One way is to ask individuals to estimate their average mood. The other way is to measure mood on a momentary basis, asking individuals at frequent intervals to indicate their mood at the moment, and then taking the average of these responses. This latter way of assessing mood is less influenced by biased recall than just asking subjects to estimate overall mood.
The investigators recruited 49 end-stage renal patients receiving hemodialysis treatment three times per week and 49 healthy controls who were matched to the patients on age, race, sex, and education. Subjects were first given an entry interview during which they estimated their average mood. They were then asked to carry around Palm Pilots for a week that beeped at random intervals, prompting them to indicate their mood at the moment. After carrying the Palm Pilots around for a week, subjects completed an exit interview that asked them to recall their average mood in the last week and to again estimate their average mood in general. Healthy subjects also estimated what they thought their average mood would be if they were a hemodialysis patient.
The investigators found that patients' average momentary moods were no lower than their estimated average mood, thus finding no evidence that patients exaggerate their mood. In fact, they failed to find any evidence that patients experience lower moods than healthy controls. In appears, then, that hemodialysis patients do largely adapt to their condition. On the other hand, healthy controls did rate that their average mood would be lower if they were homodialysis patients. Thus, the previously observed tendency of healthy people to underestimate the reported quality of life of people with various health conditions does seem to be due, in large part, to their misperception of the extent to which people can adapt to such conditions. In this study, healthy people also underestimated their own average mood. This could also account for some of the discrepancy, but the effect was not very large.
Why this is important
Ignorance of adaptation can have negative consequences for decision making. It can cause individuals to opt for unnecessarily risky surgeries and policymakers to invest in programs that have a minimal impact on people's well-being. This is not to say that research and treatment of kidney disease should not continue to be priorities, but in making difficult policy decisions, consideration of the moods experienced by patients may influence priorities between serious conditions such as, for example, paraplegia and depression. The results of this study suggest that policy makers should proceed with caition because healthy people's apparent exaggeration of the influence of illness on mood can lead to incorrect perceptions of how illness will influence quality of life.
Read the article:
Ignorance of hedonic adaptation to hemo-dialysis: a study using ecological momentary assessment.
Riis J, Loewenstein G, Baron J, Jepson C, Fagerlin A, Ubel PA. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2005;134:3-9.
A respected national organization has released new guidelines. As a physician, would you change your patient's treatment based on these recommendations? Imagine you are a primary care physician taking care of a male patient, Sam, with mildly elevated cholesterol. He doesn't like taking pills and, fortunately, his cholesterol has been good enough that he doesn't need any pills. But now, a respected National Organization has just revised its recommendations, and are urging doctors to treat cholesterol more aggressively, even in people like this patient, who has no history of heart disease or diabetes.
What role should these new guidelines play in your decision?
- ask him to take a pill.
- urge him to take a pill.
- give him information about cholesterol and let him decide.
- urge him not to take a pill.
- ask him not to take a pill.
How do your answers compare?
What were some of the things you were weighing when you made your decision? Perhaps you were wondering why the National Organization would recommend taking a pill even when a patient's cholesterol is good enough that they wouldn't necessarily need the more aggressive treatment. You might have found yourself wondering whose interests were reflected in these guidelines. Did the National Organization have some kind of investment in the pill or the pharmaceutical company that produces it? You might have had some doubts about just how much you could trust the guidelines.
Resistance to practicing "cost-effective" medicine
In the past, physicians did what was best for each individual patient in their care, without having to consider cost or having to figure out whether an HMO or accreditation board was looking over their shoulders. But now physicians are put in the awkward position of having to judge whether a particular patient will benefit enough from a specific therapy for that therapy to be cost-effective. It is not surprising that physicians disparage cost-effectiveness in health care, given that traditional medical education teaches that they should not consider the cost of medical interventions when treating individual patients.
Resistance to practicing according to Clinical Practice Guidelines
Clinical practice guidelines, like the one you read about on the previous page, offer a potentially palatable way for physicians to consider the cost-effectiveness of medical interventions. High quality guidelines are based on thorough and systematic reviews of clinical and cost-effectiveness evidence. Still, physicians are often concerned that guidelines are tainted by financial conflicts of interest. The experts who are involved in writing the guidelines are often the same individuals who interact with the pharmaceutical industry.
Why cost-effectiveness and Clinical Practice Guidelines belong together
Investigator Ellen Hummel and CBDSM investigator Peter Ubel were asked by the editors of Virtual Mentor, the online ethics forum of the American Medical Association, to comment on whether clinical practice guidelines ought to incorporate cost-effectiveness information. These investigators begin by acknowledging the resistance to practicing cost-effective medicine. At the same time, however, they argue that including cost-effectiveness information in clinical practice guidelines is an essential way to address physicians' concerns about the kinds of conflicts of interest mentioned above. If cost-effectiveness evidence is presented up-front, physicians wouldn't have as many concerns that the guielines were intended to benefit the industry while sticking the patient with a higher cost. Imagine if on the previous page the guideline had presented evidence that the new, more aggressive cholesterol treatment was still well within accepted cost-effectiveness ratios despite potential conflicts of interest. You might have then better trusted the guideline's recommendation when assessing what to tell Sam.
Including cost-effectiveness information in clinical practice guidelines will enhance the credibility of their recommendations. At the same time, evidence-based guidelines help clinicians recognize the importance of practicing cost-effective medicine with their individual patients. With the help of high quality guidelines, physicians may be encouraged by groups of peers and respected authorities to restrain themselves from pursuing rare benefits for their patients, which is especially important in a time when our current health care system increasingly demands that we become involved with the costs of medical care.
Read the article:
Cost and clinical practice guidelines: Can two wrongs make it right?
Ubel PA, Hummel EK. Virtual Mentor 2004;6:np.
Darin Zahuranec’s survey study, “Variability in physician prognosis and recommendations after intracerebral hemorrhage” published in Neurology found that physicians vary substantially in ICH prognostic estimates and treatment recommendations. This study suggests that variability could have a profound effect on life and death decision-making and treatment for ICH.
Several CBSSM-affiliated faculty and alumni were co-authors: Angie Fagerlin, Meghan Roney, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, and Lewis Morgenstern.
At CBSSM, we perform the basic and applied scientific research that will improve health care policy and practice to benefit patients and their families, health care providers, third-party payers, policy makers, and the general public. In our "Interactive Decision" web feature, we turn a recent research finding into an interactive decision that a patient or policy maker might face. Read, decide, click—and see how your answers compare with our respondents.